"Culkins are kind of like Bebe's Kids... they don't die, they multiply." Sorry... but this was the thought that surged through my mind as I settled into Lymelife, another self-satisfied, allegorical tale of the gritty dark side of Northeastern suburban paradise and its attendant loss of innocence, all as peddled by Derick Martini, making his directorial debut. A sort of facile, surface-polished lesser entry in the canon of movies like The Ice Storm, The Chumscrubber and American Beauty, in which sensible and in some regards overly mature kids grapple with philandering and emotionally stunted adults, Lymelife is a bunch of discrete, thematically similar scenes in search of a cogent narrative punch.
Centering on two deeply troubled, dysfunctional families during the dog days of the 1970s, the film revolves around an awkward, sensitive 15-year-old boy, Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), whose family life is ostensibly turned upside down after an outbreak of Lyme disease hits his community, spreading illness and paranoia. Scott’s parents — workaholic father Mickey (Alec Baldwin) and overprotective mother Brenda (Jill Hennessy) — are unhappy in swallowed ways bubbling just underneath the surface, and his older brother Jim (Kieran Culkin) is back on brief loan from the Army, and about to ship off for war. Complicating matters, Scott has fallen in love with his neighbor and longtime friend, Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts). Troubled in different ways, Adrianna's less affluent family consists of her uptight mother, Melissa (Cynthia Nixon), who's carrying on a not-so-clandestine love affair, and her father, Charlie (Timothy Hutton), who's slowly slipping away from the effects of Lyme disease.
Derick Martini and his brother Steven, the writer-actors behind the winning, low-budget 1999 indie Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire, collaborated on Lymelife's script based on their own experiences growing up on suburban Long Island, but the movie feels too cute by about half, groomed for indie flick preciousness in certain scenes. Lymelife premiered, I gather, at the Toronto Film Festival, and truth be told it's the warm bosom of a welcoming throng of international filmgoers that's the best home for this decently acted but otherwise marginally disappointing domestic ensemble.
There's something of a charismatic star spark from the young Roberts, particularly in the manner in which she captures how teenage females drive the bus of sexual experience, and set the tone for the vast majority of adolescent amorous encounters. But overall her performance is a hot-and-cold thing, a lot of which is admittedly dictated from a scattershot characterization that finds Adrianna admonishing and/or patronizing Scott one moment ("I can call your mom, she can bring you an icepack or a Yoo Hoo or something," she says in an awkward, meant-to-be-serious moment, after a bully thumps Scott), and then flashing him her red bra in confessional booth the next.
The Martinis have a nice touch with some end-around, unexpected moments of interpersonal friction or personal introspection — there's a great bar scene between Mickey and Charlie that ranks among the best scenes of passive-aggressiveness I can recall — but the Lyme disease-as-metaphor stuff doesn't play, and they absolutely overreach when they aim for more overt emotional manipulation. These hamfisted instincts most reveal themselves in thunderously stupid and unrealistic behavior by cheating adults — bits crammed in to advance scenes, and feed revelation amongst minors — and reach their apex in a woefully misguided finale that feels like a straight-up gangsta rip-off of American Beauty, only without the balls of actual catharsis through bloodletting. (Screen Media, R, 95 minutes)